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Shelter Islander journeys to Ukraine to assist those who are suffering

Standing in the kitchen of his Shelter Island home the morning of April 5, John Reilly felt a shaking under his feet, vibrations from the walls, and a sudden, strange rush of air and sound.

“My first thought was, ‘What the hell? Is this a …’” But then he quickly thought — No. It wasn’t an armored missile overhead, or one that had struck the earth nearby. “But for just a moment, I was back there,” Mr. Reilly said.

Few people on the Island felt the tremors from the earthquake centered in New Jersey more vividly or with more emotion than the physician assistant, who returned late last month from war zones in Ukraine. He had been on a nearly three-week mission for the Kansas-based nonprofit, Global Care Force, which sends supplies and medical personnel to the country under siege, where hospitals are under-staffed, and supplies are dwindling to a crisis stage.

Global Care Force was started in 2020 as COVID Care Force, and was supported by more than 1,500 volunteers and a large network of donors. A year later the group became Global Care Force, to bring aid to beleaguered hospitals around the world.

In his time in Ukraine, Mr. Reilly worked with a team of medical volunteers in large and medium-sized cities, as well as extended periods in poor, remote villages close to the front lines — once he and his team were just several kilometers away from the border with Russia — bringing aid, medications and some degree of solace to the patients.

He spent time in bomb shelters, in crowded spaces, working with people experiencing PTSD, and torture victims, including one man who Russian soldiers “had used as an ashtray.” Days and nights of work ran together. 

As the war continues to grind on, civilians are suffering at an alarming rate. A United Nations Report in January stated: “The past weeks saw a steep increase in civilian casualties as the Russian Federation intensified missile and drone attacks across Ukraine … In the course of just 10 days … hundreds of civilians were killed or wounded in drone and missile attacks across the country …”

Mr. Reilly, who works in Bridgehampton’s GoHealth Urgent Care Clinic, part of the Northwell system, volunteered his time to bring his expertise and medical supplies — antibiotics, insulin, diabetes and other medications — to Ukraine, which is now in a two-year battle for its national sovereignty after the Russian invasion.

Treating the wounded. From left, John Reilly, an interpreter, and a Ukrainian soldier on leave for treatment of his wounds. (Courtesy photo)

A long journey

It took 13 hours to get to Kraków, Poland from New York, in the air and with a layover in Munich. When he arrived he was greeted by representatives of Global Care Force, who put Mr. Reilly up in a hotel for a day and were efficient, organized guides and interpreters from the time he landed to the time he disembarked. “Global Care Force really has it down,” he said in admiration.

Then it was a three-hour train ride to the Ukraine border, where the team disembarked at a checkpoint that looked “like something out of  World War II.” There, he and the team — another physician assistant, a nurse who had served in Iraq, a nurse who had been an Ebola nurse in the epidemic in Africa, and a woman schooled in bio-tech — had a long wait in pouring rain for their papers to be sorted out by checkpoint guards.

“It prepared us for what was to come,” Mr. Reilly said.

There was another long train ride to Kyiv, and the first of what seemed an interminable barrage of air raid sirens and explosions. At a hotel on his first night, sirens sounded and everyone was told to go to the basement bomb shelter.

One of his colleagues was barefoot and they went to the front desk to ask if there were any slippers available. The desk manager produced a pair and then urged them to hurry to the shelter. It was then that Mr. Reilly experienced the first of many instances of Ukrainian stoicism and commitment.

Another day in the life of Ukraine. (Courtesy photo)

“Behind him was this wall of glass, floor to ceiling,” Mr. Reilly remembered. If there was an explosion anywhere nearby, that wall of glass would come down on him. “I asked him if he was going to join us in the shelter and he calmly said, ‘No, I have to stay here, to help you and the other guests.’”

The War Up Close

In Kyiv Mr. Reilly had the often hallucinatory sensation of urban warfare. A large, cosmopolitan city where many people dress in high, western-style fashion, it is also a city of sirens, residents desperate for medicine and professional care, and gaping craters and jumbled blocks of stone that once were buildings.

At a church in the northern part of the city, Mr. Reilly worked long hours treating patients, many of them for hypertension — “Sometimes it seemed the whole country was suffering from hypertension” — diabetes and thyroid cancer. “Chernobyl isn’t very far away.”

There were also many patients with war-related psychiatric issues, including PTSD. “All of these people, if they were here on the East End, would be going to the emergency room immediately,” Mr. Reilly said.

In Bucha, Mr. Reilly saw evidence of war crimes, treating patients who had been there when the Russian military swept though. “We treated torture victims, almost all of them older people,” he said, “Most of the kids were either kidnapped or evacuated. We saw a lot of amputees.”

Human Rights Watch reported that last April researchers who worked in Bucha “after Russian forces withdrew from the area, found extensive evidence of summary executions, other unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, and torture, all of which would constitute war crimes and potential crimes against humanity. Nearly every corner in Bucha is now a crime scene, and it felt like death was everywhere,” said Richard Weir, crisis and conflict researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The evidence indicates that Russian forces occupying Bucha showed contempt and disregard for civilian life and the most fundamental principles of the laws of war.”

Mr. Reilly bore witness to those horrors with his hands-on treatment of people who are still suffering.

The Villages

“The country is beautiful,” he said, recalling vast farms, stretching from horizon to horizon. “One of our team was from Kansas,” Mr. Reilly said, “and she said those plains are even larger than in her home state.”

Travel was rough, slow, and constantly interrupted on roads filled with ruts and deep holes from artillery blasts. The villages are small, averaging only 250-300 residents or so, many with no heat or running water.

“We’d examine women, and they’d have three or four layers of sweats on under their outer clothes to try and stay warm,” he said, describing the cold as sinking right to the bone. “Sometimes it was warmer outside than inside, since many places are made of stone that holds the cold in.” 

PA Reilly, center, treating a Ukrainian woman, with an interpreter. (Courtesy photo)

Mr. Reilly’s team visited nine villages, treated 331 patients, 81 of them seeing medical professionals for the first time. “These were villages that had been occupied by Russian forces,” Mr. Reilly said.

The victims of torture are people Mr. Reilly will have a long time forgetting, if ever. He treated an 84-year-old man, the one he said had been used as an ashtray by Russian soldiers. “He was a Russian, but considered himself Ukrainian. Ukraine was home,” he said. “Soldiers put out their cigarettes on him. I had to dig out the tissue from the wounds, and didn’t have anything to give him for the pain. He just sat there, and never complained. Just bore it. And, like everyone else, was so thankful for what we were doing to help them.”

He saw schools, hospitals and churches blown to pieces in the cities, the goal being to break the Ukrainians’ spirits, he said. “It hasn’t worked.”

When windows were blown out by artillery attacks, he was touched to see vinyl replacements put in almost immediately, whether they fit or not. And in other places, plywood was put in place of the shattered glass “and then people would paint flowers on the wood.”

He was asked to comment on many Americans — including members of Congress — who are against sending aid to Ukraine. He mentioned that Vladimir Putin, in trying to recreate the Soviet Union, has invaded Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine.

“Depending on their age or their children’s ages, those against aid may eventually be going to war to defend a NATO country,” Mr. Reilly said. “But also, if they could see the suffering of the Ukrainian people, they might change their opinion.”

Asked if he would make another journey back to Ukraine, Mr. Reilly said members of his team would be heading back this summer, but that’s the busy part of the year for his practice as a physician assistant in Bridgehampton.

“Looks like I’ll go back when it’s cold again,” he said. “There’s unfinished work to do.”

For more on Mr.Reilly’s mission to Ukraine, here’s a link to Jonathan Russo’s Out of the Box podcast with him:


A community center destroyed by Russian artillery. (Courtesy photo)